By Ian MacAlpine, Kingston Whig-Standard,
Usually, a student who snores in class may have some trouble graduating. That’s not the case with Lawrence.
The one-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever will soon be graduating from Leahurst College, a private school located in the Woolen Mill, after only one year of taking classes. Lawrence comes from Kingston 4 Paws Academy, a non-profit group that trains dogs for a variety of clients with issues, including autism, epilepsy and mobility issues.
Elizabeth Turcke, the head of school for Leahurst, and her husband Bob, a teacher in the Limestone District School Board, got the idea to volunteer along with their daughters Isla and Hana to raise Lawrence for a year before being handed over to a child with autism.
Lawrence is named after the St. Lawrence College’s veterinary assistant program, which donated $3,000 to the academy.
At the school of 33 students from grades 7 to 11, Lawrence seems to have the run of the place. He can be found walking down the hallway to greet a visitor, sleeping and snoring under a student’s desk, hanging out in Turcke’s office, or banging his empty water bowl to be refilled near the school secretary’s desk. Turcke said Lawrence is universally loved by staff and students.
“I did not fully understand how this was all going to flow and work out when we brought him into the setting, but it’s been fantastic,” Turcke said on Monday. “He puts a smile on everybody’s face; he makes everyone feel at home.
“He’s been a wonderful addition to the energy here.”
The dog lived with the Turcke family for the past year and goes to school with Elizabeth and her daughter Isla, who’s in Grade 10. Lawrence has not just stayed in school, he’s been on many field trips, has been to a Remembrance Day ceremony, has sat in the rowing coach’s boat out on the river as well as taking a trip to Queen’s MRI. “He goes all over the place. Part of our job is to get him accustomed to all kinds of environments.”
Turcke is impressed with Lawrence’s sleeping habits, but wouldn’t be if her human students displayed the same tendency. “In the middle of a very quiet test he’ll start snoring,” she said. “Just to rub it in, the kids are writing a stressful test and he’s living the life. I think that kind of thing is really typical.”
During breaks between classes, Lawrence appears to get along with all of the students. And all of the students seem to like him. “It just shows the kids absolutely love having him,” Turcke said. She added that the dog’s favourite class is music. “Lawrence loves that class. He goes in every single time, sits and listens. You’d think he’d join in every once in a while, but he never does. He resists the temptation to howl along,” Turcke said.
“He’s a really great dog. He’s got a beautiful temperament, extremely gentle, unbelievably submissive.”
Turcke said she’s purchased a school bow tie for Lawrence to wear to the graduation ceremony and school awards coming up later this month. “We haven’t planned exactly what we’ll do for Lawrence, but I’m confident he’ll get some sort of award.”
Samantha Knapp, a head trainer at Kingston 4 Paws Academy along with Elizabeth Bailey, said having Lawrence at Leahurst has been a great arrangement. “He’s had a lot of experience in a school, which is great, I know it’s a small school, but it’s been a good thing for him,” Knapp said.
Knapp said Lawrence will be used to the sights, smells and sounds of a school once he’s partnered with an autistic child.
“He’s a big boy and he’s got the size for the kids with autism,” Knapp said. “Often they bolt, so we need a bigger dog.”
Lawrence hasn’t been matched with a child yet, Knapp said. Once Lawrence is about 14 months old, he’ll go back to live at the academy and will start advanced training before he’s matched with a child and family at about two years of age.
“He needs more intensive training. That’s where our skills come in,” Knapp said. “He’s got a little ways to go yet, but they’ve done a great job with him.”
Kingston 4 Paws Academy is looking for more families to take a future service dog for a year. “We’re always looking for puppy raisers. There’s no cost to families who train a puppy for a year”, Knapp said. The academy covers the costs of veterinary bills, immunizations, food and any other costs.
People who end up with the service dog pay anywhere from $15,000 to $18,000 per dog. Many prospective clients fundraise on their own to be able to afford the four-legged service provider.
No doubt there will be some sadness when Lawrence leaves the Turcke family and Leahurst College, but Turcke can see the big picture in the dog’s departure. “We all know he’s leaving, but it will be really hard on everyone, I’m sure,” she said. “But the whole point of this is you’re doing something that’s going to benefit another child and you need to keep that in mind. “We just hope he goes home with a wonderful family.”
For more information about the program, go online to www.4pawsacademy.ca or check out the school’s Facebook page.